Your Life Will Be Absurdly Brief
What I read: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Published August 10, 2021.
Read this book! Really!
Now, with that out of the way…
Every so often a book comes along that seems to deliver exactly what I need to read at the moment. This is not fate or the universe lending me a hand. I know it’s that when someone is ready to hear a message, they are more likely to notice delivery mechanisms for that message. This book offers one such message I absolutely needed to read.
I now consider this one of the most important books for anyone to read. So many of life’s problems stem from the hyper productivity mindset malady that infects our culture.
My awareness of this book came through an article in which esteemed philosopher Nigel Warburton recommended Four Thousand Weeks as one of The Best Philosophy Books of 2021. At first glance, this might not appear to be a book about philosophy. Warburton disagrees.
Some people won’t see this as a philosophy book, but it is. It’s a book about what we do with our limited time on Earth, how we decide to prioritise and proportion our time. To that extent it’s a book of ethics in the face of inevitable death. Even if you or I live to 90, as he points out at the beginning of the book, that will only be 4,700 weeks of existence. I have to admit that when I read the title I checked the calculation because 4,000 weeks sounded far too few for a life. That’s frighteningly short. And, obviously, most people who read the book will have far fewer than 4,000 weeks left.
My interest was piqued and I bought the book immediately. Anyone who has followed me over the past years knows that maximizing productivity has always interested me. Some of my past articles like Reevaluate Your Life Every Day, Living Life “5 At A Time”, Setting Minimum Daily Requirements to Relieve Productivity Stress, Refining My Daily Process, and Stop Dangling Carrots are but a few examples of my ongoing obsession with both productivity and living life better generally. I think about this stuff a lot. Maybe too much.
At the core of the book’s argument for a better way to live is the reality that the average human lifespan is absurdly brief. Thus, the book’s title. If you live to 80, you have about 4,000 weeks on the planet. That’s it. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not. Especially when you do the math and start deducting time for sleep, chores, childcare, cleaning, cooking, eating, and all of the other ongoing activities we must do.
Oliver Burkeman takes us on a journey of examining the time we have and what we should do with that time. He invokes philosophers throughout the book to punctuate his contentions saying this about the brevity of time we have to live.
Expressing the matter in such startling terms makes it easy to see why philosophers from ancient Greece to the present day have taken the brevity of life to be the defining problem of human existence: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action. “This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live,” lamented Seneca, the Roman philosopher, in a letter known today under the title On the Shortness of Life.
Our Western, and especially American, focus on busyness is a cultural sickness. We cheer and compliment those who seem to cram more than their fair share of work and tasks into 24 hours. But to what end? Are our lives truly better because of the hustle mindset productivity gurus and corporate coaches suggest we adopt? I can say confidently the answer is no. Burkeman asks us to take a step back, get real about the time we actually have to spend on worthwhile endeavors, and to proceed accordingly.
Burkeman admits to having been a productivity geek in the past. He experimented with an assortment of productivity hacks. Ultimately, he found them all lacking.
I remember sitting on a park bench near my home in Brooklyn one winter morning in 2014, feeling even more anxious than usual about the volume of undone tasks, and suddenly realizing that none of this was ever going to work. I would never succeed in marshaling enough efficiency, self-discipline, and effort to force my way through to the feeling that I was on top of everything, that I was fulfilling all my obligations and had no need to worry about the future. Ironically, the realization that this had been a useless strategy for attaining peace of mind brought me some immediate peace of mind. (After all, once you become convinced that something you’ve been attempting is impossible, it’s a lot harder to keep on berating yourself for failing.) What I had yet to understand, at that point, was why all these methods were doomed to fail, which was that I was using them to try to obtain a feeling of control over my life that would always remain out of reach.
The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining the why of productivity systems not working for long and why focusing on productivity for its own sake is such folly.
Are you one of those people that sometimes wears your busyness as a badge of honor? I have been. People ask about my day and I’ll reply “I’m so busy. So much work!” as if somehow them hearing how busy I am will impress them in some bizarre way. (Hint: It doesn’t impress anyone.)
Whether it’s managing your email inbox, creating long to do lists, or planning your life in exacting detail for the next five years, it is generally guaranteed that it’s all going to be thwarted at some point. This can lead to the frustrated person utilizing the same planning and productivity tricks again and again only to fail, again. Life doesn’t care so much about your plans because it’s only giving you so much time on the planet and squeezing everything into that limited timeframe will never work. Never.
The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or applied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel “on top of things,” or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done. For a start, what “matters” is subjective, so you’ve no grounds for assuming that there will be time for everything that you, or your employer, or your culture happens to deem important. But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory.
The reality is that each of us much decide what few specific things we want to focus on in life because were never going to do it all. Our eyes are always bigger than our stomachs, so to speak.
The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.
Underlying Burkeman’s suggestions is the stark fact that we are all of us faced with a limited lifespan. Even those of us lucky enough to live into our 80s, 90s, or 100s are faced with only so much time to do everything we want to do in life. This needing to face our finitude is the big aha moment we should all be blessed with experiencing because it can direct the rest of our lives in better directions.
Let me state something here that matters to this discussion. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in an afterlife. When I die I believe I die. That’s it. There is no do over. There is no heaven, hell, or any other place of spiritual resting. We simply cease to exist. I came to peace with that long ago and I’m fully aware many people disagree. But I agree with Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund who juxtaposes facing our finitude with the religious belief in an eternal life, and that the brevity of our existence still matters even for those who ascribe to religious teachings whose dogma promote an afterlife.
If you really thought life would never end, he argues, then nothing could ever genuinely matter, because you’d never be faced with having to decide whether or not to use a portion of your precious life on something. “If I believed that my life would last forever,” Hägglund writes, “I could never take my life to be at stake, and I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time.” Eternity would be deathly dull, because whenever you found yourself wondering whether or not to do any given thing, on any given day, the answer would always be: Who cares?
Procrastination is something we all think about and countless articles and life coaches have espoused methods for beating back this personal shortcoming. It ultimately doesn’t work. We can’t squeeze all of the many things we want to do into a single life. We must pick and choose. Perhaps procrastination is simply nature’s way of trying to emphasize you have limited time so you better start doing just those things you can do and set aside your fantasy perfect life scenarios.
Burkeman coalesces the advice from other brilliant minds who have thought about this into three main principles.
The first is pay yourself first when it comes to time. You can’t ever get to those things that truly matter to you if you prioritize all of the other demands on your time. You’ll never have enough time left over for the important stuff.
The second is to limit your work in progress. It might seem like you’re being productive if you’re juggling a dozen different projects at the same time, but you’re not. You end up not making much significant progress on any one of them. Instead, limit the number of things you allow yourself to work on at any given time. What is that optimal number? I’m not sure anyone knows for sure, but various thought leaders on this topic have consistently suggested just three important projects at one time. Others suggest you serialize your projects and only work on one of them at a time to completion before starting another. The important point is that you can’t juggle countless projects all at the same time and do justice to any of them.
The third is to “resist the allure of middling priorities.” Burkeman describes this point this way.
You needn’t embrace the specific practice of listing out your goals (I don’t, personally) to appreciate the underlying point, which is that in a world of too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing ones—the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship—on which a finite life can come to grief. It’s a self-help cliché that most of us need to get better at learning to say no. But as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert points out, it’s all too easy to assume that this merely entails finding the courage to decline various tedious things you never wanted to do in the first place. In fact, she explains, “it’s much harder than that. You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.”
It’s human nature, especially in these modern times during which we are culturally encouraged to do more, and more, and more, with no finite upper-end limit to what you should be able to accomplish, to allow roadblocks like perfectionism to paralyze us. The fact that we must settle on a relatively small set of goals and priorities rubs against our ingrained productivity obsession. But these are realities with which we must grapple if we’re to accomplish the few truly important things we want to do in life.
Modern day life presents us with countless distractions. Social media. Email. Pings and clicks from notifications on our cell phone. Mindless television that passes the time without much true engagement. Mundane work tasks that grind away negatively at our sense of life purpose. At every turn life is ready to distract us from what’s truly important. What we’re really doing is attempting to escape the truth of our demise. That demise may come many years in the future, or you could finish reading this article and drop dead from a heart attack minutes later. I don’t mean to be gruesome here. I just want people to realize that none of us are promised any specific amount of time on the planet and distractions that detract from living a good life need to be seen for what they are.
The solution to this mystery, dramatic though it might sound, is that whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude—with the human predicament of having limited time, and more especially, in the case of distraction, limited control over that time, which makes it impossible to feel certain about how things will turn out. (Except, that is, for the deeply unpleasant certainty that one day death will bring it all to an end.) When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits, an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much.
This post is already getting pretty long and I’ve only addressed Part I (Choosing to Choose) of the book. Part II (Beyond Control) discusses things like why we never really have the time we think we have because life throws us curveballs. Or that always focusing on future outcomes that never arrive devalues the beauty of living in the here and now.
One point I’m glad Burkeman makes is how difficult it is to actually live entirely in the moment. We try it and it’s so difficult we assume we’re flawed that we can’t rise to that level of spiritual clarity.
Attempting to “live in the moment,” to find meaning in life now, brings its own challenges too, though. Have you ever actually tried it? Despite the insistence of modern mindfulness teachers that it’s a speedy path to happiness—and despite a growing body of psychological research on the benefits of “savoring,” or making the deliberate effort to appreciate life’s smaller pleasures—it turns out to be bewilderingly difficult to do.
Another point brought up in Part II of the book is how important rest is. I wrote about this in The Power of Rest. We have put off proper rest and relaxation in contemporary society under the mistaken impression that shortchanging rest will somehow increase our output. It doesn’t work that way. Those people putting in 16 hours at the office and sleeping less are probably not producing any more work than those working 8 hours and sleeping more. In fact, the work of the rest-deprived person it likely of less quality than of the rested.
We also have succumbed to treating our leisure activities as yet one more thing on our to do list. Leisure isn’t a nice to have. It’s a necessity. Industrialization has nudged leisure out of the way by installing a groupthink mindset that leisure is wasted time. This can lead to a type of pathological productivity that elevates the hamster wheel of nonstop “doing” over rest and leisure. This is not what life is supposed to be about.
Part of our industrialized mindset is that everything we do is supposed to have an end result in mind. But sometimes we should do something just because we want to do it. Burkeman offers the example of hiking as an end in itself.
For one thing, unlike almost everything else I do with my life, it’s not relevant to ask whether I’m any good at it: all I’m doing is walking, a skill at which I haven’t appreciably improved since around the age of four. Moreover, a country walk doesn’t have a purpose, in the sense of an outcome you’re trying to achieve or somewhere you’re trying to get.
Think of hiking as a metaphor for the other things you enjoy doing just because you enjoy doing them. Building model railroad setups. Knitting. Flying a kite. Even if there is some end result that might happen (knitting might lead to a sweater), it’s not the end result that’s important. It’s the doing. It’s the being in the moment enjoying whatever we’re doing with no thought of it being done to achieve something specific.
Impatience is rampant as Burkeman points out. Whether it’s the fruitless honking many drivers make us suffer through, the short tempers that flare while standing in a long line, or the fact that people often report difficulty staying focused on reading a book, impatience abounds. Psychotherapist Stephanie Brown describes it as our “addiction to speed.” Faster. More. Optimize. Do more. It all fosters an impatience with life and it’s not useful and in fact detracts from our life’s happiness.
Sometimes we have to stick with something a long time to get the most value from it. Something as simple as looking at a painting in an art gallery should perhaps be an extended experience so you fully appreciate the work of art rather than stopping in front of it briefly, reading the name of the piece, and moving on. To savor some things we must sit with them for a while.
To counter impatience, Burkeman offers three principles of patience.
Develop a taste for having problems. You will never reach a state in which you don’t have problems. Never. This is the case for every human alive today. Problems are what drives us. Without problems, life would be meaningless. Nothing would be worth doing if you were not trying solve a personal, social, or professional problem.
Embrace radical incrementalism. Doing things in short bursts is often more productive and fulfilling than doing them in longer stints. Do a bit each day. Understand that it’s the daily doing that builds into something bigger. Stop before a task is finished and be comfortable with that.
Stopping helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to the project again and again, and thus to sustain your productivity over an entire career.
Realize that originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. There is power in sticking to something over time, experimenting with and exploring many of the forks in the road that present themselves along the way. Stay on your path. Early in your endeavors you might feel like you’re copying others’ works, struggling to learn new skills, and accumulating valuable experience. That’s how it works! It’s only through these early stages that you’re seemingly unoriginal work progresses into original territory. Every artist, creator, and businessperson starts by stepping directly into the footsteps in the snow of those who have created heralded original work.
One thing the book points out that really hit home for me is accepting our cosmic insignificance. This is a tough one. Ultimately, what we do and accomplish during our lifetime will be forgotten and be essentially irrelevant when seen over the long arc of time. This is also quite liberating. And perhaps it can lead to us spending time doing things that we feel are truly worthwhile.
If at some point in the distant future we are forgotten and our life’s work has been replaced by newer technologies or cultural insights, maybe we’ll be prompted to finally do what we want to do. Now. With little regard for being remembered for any particular future outcomes.
This is a perspective from which you can finally ask the most fundamental question of time management: What would it mean to spend the only time you ever get in a way that truly feels as though you are making it count?
Here’s one more way that accepting our cosmic insignificance can benefit us.
You might imagine, moreover, that living with such an unrealistic sense of your own historical importance would make life feel more meaningful, by investing your every action with a feeling of cosmic significance, however unwarranted. But what actually happens is that this overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well. It sets the bar much too high. It suggests that in order to count as having been “well spent,” your life needs to involve deeply impressive accomplishments, or that it should have a lasting impact on future generations—or at the very least that it must, in the words of the philosopher Iddo Landau, “transcend the common and the mundane.” Clearly, it can’t just be ordinary: After all, if your life is as significant in the scheme of things as you tend to believe, how could you not feel obliged to do something truly remarkable with it?
Okay, this post really has gone on for too long. In the remainder of the book Burkeman suggests we need to get over our delusion that somehow we can get the upper hand in our relationship with time. That struggle is doomed to fail. Burkeman offers five questions we can ask ourselves to come to grips with the reality of our limited time. Hope is turned on its head when Burkeman suggests that having hope might not be an ideal way to proceed through life. Maybe accepting our hopelessness is the superior route.
People sometimes ask Derrick Jensen, the environmentalist who cofounded the radical group Deep Green Resistance, how he manages to stay hopeful when everything seems so grim. But he tells them he doesn’t—and that he thinks that’s a good thing. Hope is supposed to be “our beacon in the dark,” Jensen notes. But in reality, it’s a curse. To hope for a given outcome is to place your faith in something outside yourself, and outside the current moment—the government, for example, or God, or the next generation of activists, or just “the future”—to make things all right in the end.
Finally, Burkeman offers the readers ten tools to help you embrace your finitude, the brief blink of an eye during which you will exist.
Let me end by again recommending you read this book. I can’t think of a single person who would not benefit considerably from its wisdom. It’s well written. It’s powerful. It contains ideas that will improve everyone’s life if they take the time to incorporate them into their daily lives.
May your 4,000 (or however many you have) weeks be as happy and fulfilled as possible. This book can help.
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